Memorial day this year takes on a different significance than other years for me.
This year as the number of WWII veterans continue to dwindle, another former G.I. of the Greatest Generation has recently died.
Through the years I have shared with you countless stories of my mid-century suburban family many of them featuring my father. Though often tongue in cheek, they were always from the heart.
Now I am heartbroken.
For many Memorial Day posts I fondly recalled my suburban childhood backyard barbecues when my dad would break out the Weber charcoal grill for the first Bar-B-Q of the season. A king size cigarette dangling from his lips, barbecue apron round his regulation Bermuda shorts, Dad’s grease-stained apron with its “Big Daddy” type splashed in lurid colors, distinguished this ex GI as a commander-in-chief of the barbecue brigade.
Strategically wielding the Big Boy barbecue tongs my dad was ready for any barbecue maneuver.
This year the bag of Kingdford Briquettes remain unopened, the dented, metal, grill untouched.
As I did with my mother, I helped my 96-year-old father on his final journey. For the past 6 weeks work ceased, emails remained unanswered, and my garden lay fallow, as I tended to something more important and fundamental.
I understood the symmetry that my parents gave me life and entrusted me with helping in transition towards ending their own, but emotionally the weight bore down on me.
Barely two weeks ago, that journey ended.
Befitting a once-upon-a-time-soldier, Dad received a military burial.
After the countless stories I have shared with you, it seems only fitting that I share this final tribute that I wrote to my father, Marvin Edelstein.
My Tribute to My Father – May 15, 2017
My father was a long distance runner and so it is fitting that his life ran as long as it did.
This lifelong marathon man chose to make his final journey in the same manner. The past two weeks had been a marathon for all of us, my brother Andy and I included, as we accompanied him on this last treacherous course. It was one filled with twists and turns, that we maneuvered with him, breathlessly running up our own Heartbreak Hill more than a couple of times. But each step of the way when we thought we had no more stamina, my father persevered as he did in life valiantly, pushing through, often against all odds and with amazing tenacity.
And it was he who chose when to cross the finish line.
Like many of us, my father was a complex man often filled with apparent contradictions.
A man who was decades ahead of his time in matters of gender equality turned our 1960’s “Maxwell House Haggadah” into a gender-neutral reading for our Seders. He was a man who just this past January beamed with enormous pride at my participation in the Women’s March in Washington. Yet this was the same man who good-naturedly could still refer to women as dames and broads with not a PC care in the world and wasn’t shy about exclaiming that his granddaughter Jessie was “some good looking tomato.”
My father was a secular Jew who was somewhat suspect of the dogma of religion. Yet rose to be the president of our synagogue Nassau Community Temple where he regularly participated in Torah study classes and whose favorite shower song was “Ein K’ Eloheinu,” his boisterous off-key voice bellowing out this Friday night closing hymn at the top of his lungs reverberating throughout the house.
This lifelong Republican, a county committeeman, who not only founded a local Republican club becoming their president, working tirelessly for the GOP, yet his was the first phone call I got the morning after this recent presidential election bemoaning Trump’s victory. His first words to me were: “I’m sitting Shiva.”
The son of a Damon Runyon-esque character if ever there was one, who dropped out of school in the 6th grade and whose reading was limited to the Daily Mirror, my father went on to law school and would often mention reading Proust in the sweltering jungles of New Guinea during the war…that is when he wasn’t chasing island girls!
A Twentieth-Century Man
The year he was born 1921, the hit song was “Aint We Got Fun” and in retrospect that would be an apt description of my eternally upbeat, optimistic, fun-loving father.
His life spanned nearly a century.
Remarkable, considering that when my father was born in 1921 the population over 65 was only 4%. That he lived to 96 is amazing. That 95 ½ of those years were physically active, mentally engaged is downright astounding.
He loved history which he passed on to me because, well, he lived through so darn much of it.
This was a man who saw Charles Lindbergh welcomed home as a hero at the greatest ticker-tape parade NYC had ever seen after Lucky Lindy’s historic flight to Paris. This little 6-year-old boy would himself grow to crisscross the Atlantic dozens of times with the casual ease allowed by jet planes in the many travels he enjoyed with my mother.
Born at the inception of radio and before talkies in the movies, he lived to see the computer age though despite our nudging, he sadly never took a ride on the internet highway though he marveled at having face time with his granddaughter.
FDR gave the commencement speech when my father graduated from the University of Virginia and though not a New Dealer himself, my father was very proud of the fact that the President of the United States, that most magnificent orator, spoke so eloquently at his graduation. Oh, how times have changed.
Like most men of his generation, he served in WWII, stationed in New Guinea where as part of the Army Air Corps trained as a weatherman.
I recently came across a letter he wrote while in the service exactly 74 years ago in April 1943 that was published in his home town synagogue paper The Astoria Center of Israel Bulletin:
“Here is a letter from one of our boys,” it begins, “which we are happy to bring to your attention:
For the past few weeks,” my father’s letter begins,”I have been receiving the Bulletin. Needless to say, it came at first as a great surprise – however, an extremely pleasant surprise. Now I find myself looking forward eagerly to the next issue. You have no conception how much this means to us who are so far from home. It is only now that I have begun to appreciate the phrase concerning ‘the ties that bind.’
While I was writing this, they delivered a package to me from the Ladies Guild. I can scarcely say much more than “Thank You, ladies.’ It is not merely the material contents of the box that is impressive- rather the hopes and prayers that one feels fills the package.
Being in the Army has given me a chance to fully consider and appreciate the life we all once knew and to which we will, we pray, shortly return. Your work of trying to fill in that gap certainly means a lot to us wherever we may be. We want things to be as we left them until we come back and you are helping to serve notice that they will be.
Let me thank you again and hasten to assure you that by Purim 1944 our contemporary Haman will have met the same fate as his predecessor.”
My father of course did return and began living out those post-war possibilities that were promised to the returning vets.
Post War Promises
I would grow up living my parent’s post war dreams.
And nothing personified that dream more than his suburban home which he lived in for 62 years. That suburban dream that sprung up in a field of potatoes was their Promised Land that beckoned millions of post-war pioneers including my parents.
Last week Andy and I had the sad task of going to his house on Western Park Drive to pick out a suit for his burial.
As I stood forlornly in his bedroom closet, one I had been in countless times, I felt the enormous trajectory of his adult life, of a life lived in this house. Standing in that place that late afternoon, entrusted with this somber duty, I felt myself transported back to 1955 when a 30 something ex-GI and his wife pregnant with me, a 2-year-old little boy in tow, first looked at this brand new house that would be their home for the rest of their lives.
Like thousands of other young married apartment dwellers, they began house hunting as their family expanded. Every weekend they’d trudge out to LI. Just as all the houses from the development seemed to look the same so the other house-hunting couple all seemed to mirror their experience.
Now as I stood inside that large walk-in closet he had viewed decades earlier, I imagined the thrill this young man who had shared a small Astoria apartment bedroom with his younger brother Sandy must have experienced with the prospect of a large master bedroom and the luxury of a genuine walk-in closet.
Walking from room to room, I could imagine my mother mentally installing furniture and decorating its rooms. This new house on Western Park Drive would be the beginning of the fulfillment of those post-war dreams allowing them to envision the life they would lead with their family they were just beginning.
Now this same closet that spanned 62 years that held my Dad’s worsted wool suits and polyester leisure suits, EZ care wash and wear and velour running suits, was looked through for the last time as his grown children were tasked with picking out one last, final suit.
It’s So Nice To Have A Man Around the House
My father took to suburban living with a zeal.
It was a time of the do-it-yourselfer craze and he dug right in. My father willed himself to be handy around the house. This former apartment dwelling fellow taught himself to a homeowner.
The pinnacle of that was the suburban finished basement that mid-century homage to family fun and good modern living. So in the mid-1960s my devoted dad took on the challenge.
Every night after dinner and on weekends he’d descend to the unfinished basement busying himself in this project building a frame where he would attach the faux knotty pine paneling, the waft of the toxic glue he used to install the tiles rising to the rest of the house. It was a testament to his stick to-it-tiveness and tenacity to accomplish something he had never done before. This willingness to try new things out of his comfort zone extended to many areas in his life.
This same house that Andy and I were raised in took on another chapter with the addition of my niece and nephew Jessie and Sam filling it with laughter and light. Thus began our nearly 2 decades long Sunday ritual of visiting our parents just as we had done with our own grandparents for decades. The light that Jessie and Sam brought into my father’s life was reflected in the sheer glow he emanated at the sight of them.
It was hard to miss. And now, sadly, I will….
And then there was this last chapter that began for my father in his late 80’s.
This man, who had never lived alone, had to carve out a life for himself when my dear mother passed away. Always the anchor of the family, without my mother he felt adrift, but his tenacity and positive outlook continued to pay off. He immediately signed up for college courses and joined a gym.
I was always amused that my father, a man of his times who’s previous culinary skills involved scrambling eggs and salami and perhaps tossing a manly Caesar salad. Whose only forays into food shopping might have been to drive through a Dairy Barn for a quart of milk, now found himself fascinated with supermarkets and delighting in his weekly strolls through farmers markets. Until 4 months ago my father still cooked for himself.
The Age of Mad Man
My father could be imperfect. Like all of us, he had his flaws.
A deeply sentimental man he was the product of a time and a generation that taught men to withhold their feelings and keep a stiff upper lip, to keep your own counsel. A master toastmaster with others he could in fact be short on words at home. But his devoted love of family, commitment, and loyalty were values instilled in us without words being necessary gleaned by example, and it was burnished deeply in my own soul.
In the last few months and weeks of his life as he became physically frail, he felt deeply betrayed by his body, but never once would he worry he would be left alone. As his once sharp and quick-witted mind began to deteriorate till that mind had all but disappeared what was left was his pure essence… of sweetness and gentleness. And it allowed he and I to connect in a way that in other times had sometimes eluded us.
Wherever his mind went I followed happily, without reserve or judgment.
A once clever, intelligent man’s mind was ravaged but what was left was his inner goodness, his true self distilled to its purest form of unadulterated sweetness and love. His adoring, loving gazes and endearing smiles are forever etched in my heart, knowing I was connecting with the best of him.
As he got the best of me.
When I was in second grade we were asked to write a piece about our fathers. The title of my paper was “My Daddy Fixes Everything.” Not unlike today, spelling was not my forte so I naturally spelled it Fises with an S instead of an X and that phrase clearly tickled him as he would recite that line My Daddy Fises Everything, for decades, always with a smile
In a child’s mind, my daddy could fix anything. Wielding a tube of Duco cement he could miraculously repair a broken doll, a busted toy truck, a cracked, beloved serving dish.
But alas he is not here now, but I fear even if he were, he could not fis my broken heart.
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© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.